Ancient Engineering: The Art Of Siege Warfare

Ancient Engineering: The Art Of Siege Warfare

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The word ‘siege‘ conjures up imagery of high wooden towers attacking thick stone castle walls, but in the ancient world sieges also required extreme engineering prowess. Innovations in attack catapult technology and in the building of military blockades around defending cities promoted the arts of conducting and resisting sieges. Historians and archaeologists refer to this as ‘ siege warfare ‘ or ‘siege craft‘. During the Medieval period sieges most often ended after a few months with the defenders generally starving or dying of diseases, but in ancient history sieges sometimes lasted for several years. Among the earliest ever recorded sieges, three of them represent unique military-engineering amalgams where innovations on both sides changed the entire shape of world history.

Assyrians using ‘ siege ladders attack ing an enemy town during the reign of Tiglath-Pileser III 720-738 BC, carved in his royal palace at Kalhu (Nimrud). ( Mary Harrsch / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Siege of Megiddo

Inhabited since around 7000 BC Tel Megiddo (Tell of the Governor) is a hilltop archaeological site at the ancient city of Megiddo, in northern Israel, about 30 kilometers (18.64 miles) south-east of Haifa. Megiddo is historically, geographically and theologically most well-known by its Greek name, Armageddon, and this is the legendary location identified in the Bible where the last battle between angels and demons would be fought at the End of Days. Located at the northern end of the Wadi Ara defile pass through the Carmel Ridge, and overlooking the rich Jezreel Valley from the west, according to writers Richard Ernest and Trevor Nesbit in their 1993, The Encyclopedia of Military History from 3500 BC to the Present, Megiddo was an exceptionally important Bronze Age Canaanite city-state. During the Iron Age it became a royal city in the Kingdom of Israel. The site is now protected as the Megiddo National Park and declared a World Heritage Site.

Tel Megiddo is the site of the ancient city of Megiddo which is best known by its prophetic Greek name - “ Armageddon”. ( AVRAM GRAICER /CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Megiddo strategically guarded the western branch of a narrow pass on the Via Maris, the most important trade route of the ancient Fertile Crescent linking Egypt with Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, which meant it was the site of several battles including the first recorded military engagement in history, the ‘Battle of Megiddo’ in the 15th century BC.

Chinese Siege Warfare - Mechanical Artillery & Siege Weapons of Antiquity


Someone happened to stumble upon your blog and pointed me here. Thank you for a wonderful review of the book. The book used to be available on Amazon UK and Amazon Canada but not on Amazon US. The book is a limited print with only 800 copies available worldwide. The book is now available in Borders and in Kinokuniya as well as mail order from (they still have copies if I'm not wrong).

Liang Jieming
ps. please use the main entry page to the website because that index page is changed and updated everytime I made changes.

very ancient but very powerful during those times. great piece of engineering.

Medieval Weapons for Breaching Fortifications

1. Battering Ram: Ancient Invention Used In Medieval War

A reconstruction of a simple wooden battering ram at Baba Vida Castle in Vidin, Bulgaria , photographed by Klearchos Kapoutsi s, 2009, via Flickr

The battering ram is a very simple siege weapon designed to break open the gates or walls of a fortification through repeated blunt blows . Battering rams usually consisted of a large log, which would be propelled against a gate or wall with a large amount of force – either by a team of people holding the log and physically swinging it, or else by being suspended in a frame by chains or ropes, from which it would be pulled back and released to swing forwards.

In order to better protect the soldiers operating the battering ram from the missiles of the defenders, the frame in which the ram was mounted was covered. Often this (usually wooden) canopy was also coated in wet animal hides in order to make it resistant to fire. Rams could also be ‘capped’, where the end would be fitted with a block of iron or steel sometimes shaped into an animal’s head, in order to make them more effective during medieval war.

Battering rams were popular because they were extremely quick and easy to construct, whilst also being very powerful medieval weapons. When brought to bear against wooden gates or stone walls (which were particularly prone to splintering or shattering) they could create cracks and eventually holes with repeated blows, allowing the besiegers entry to the fortification.

Assyrian gypsum wall relief displaying Ashurnasirpal II besieging a strongly-walled town using a battering ram , 865-60 BC, via the British Museum, London

This siege weapon has very ancient origins. The earliest depiction is thought to be from 11 th century BC Egypt, where engravings on a tomb show soldiers advancing towards a fortress under a roofed structure carrying a long pole. During the iron age, battering rams were used across the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Assyrian engravings demonstrate how large and advanced these siege engines had become by the 9 th century BC, with battering rams being covered in wet hides.

Historical sources also attest to the use of battering rams by the ancient Greeks and the Romans, who employed them first in wars against the Gauls. The Roman writer Vitruvius mentions an innovation used by Alexander the Great , whereby the ram was supported by rollers rather than ropes or chains. These rollers would allow the ram to pick up more speed, hitting its target with more force and causing greater damage. Battering rams remained popular as medieval weapons and were used at some of the most important sieges of the era, including throughout the crusades and during multiple sieges of Constantinople .

2. Siege Towers: Movable Protection

The Siege of Lisbon by Alfredo Roque Gameiro , 1917, via

Siege towers were designed to transport besieging soldiers and ladders close to the walls of a fortification, whilst also protecting them from enemy bow and crossbow fire. Usually, the tower would be rectangular in shape and was constructed to equal the height of the walls it faced. Internally the siege tower would be fitted with ladders and a series of platforms rising up the structure on which soldiers could stand. The top of the siege tower was usually crowned by another open-air platform – typically archers or crossbowmen stood on this top platform and fired at the defenders as the tower approached the walls.

These medieval weapons were mounted on wheels so that they could be pushed to the walls. Much like the battering ram, the wooden sides of the siege tower were susceptible to fire and were therefore often coated in wet animal hides. During an assault, the siege tower would be rolled to the walls as the soldiers inside sheltered from enemy missile fire – once it reached the walls, a gangplank would be thrown down between it and the wall, either from the top platform or one of the internal platforms, allowing the attackers to access the curtain walls of a fortification.

Illustration of pavisors and a moveable siege tower from Military Antiquities Respecting a History of The English Army from Conquest to the Present Time by Francis Grose , 1801, via Google Books

Thanks to their enormous size and weight, siege towers were very slow and were usually the target of garrison artillery fire. They were typically constructed on-site during the siege, and some were even built to contain internal battering rams too. Siege towers were also vulnerable to earthworks such as ditches and would need teams of men to prepare the way for them during an assault by filling in these ditches.

Like battering rams, siege towers also have ancient origins and were used extensively by the Egyptians, Romans , Assyrians , and Chinese. They were commonly used as medieval weapons, and their designs became increasingly large and complex – at the siege of Kenilworth Castle , a tower that could house 200 archers was constructed. However, the invention of gunpowder artillery rendered siege towers obsolete, as cannons were far more effective at destroying the curtain walls of a fortification. Since these guns could destroy walls with relative ease, towers were no longer required to transport troops over curtain walls.

The Bible has no great set-piece battles like those of Alexander or Napoleon. If they happened, the Bible does not describe them.

Very little is known about the deployment of troops during any particular battle – the Bible describes

  • the reasons for the battle
  • who was involved
  • and what the result was
  • but it tells us virtually nothing of the strategies used by the opposing generals.

In the early days before the reign of David, fighting consisted of skirmishes or raids.

The Israelites were experts at guerilla fighting, relying on surprise attacks to panic their enemies.

These battles fall into two groups – roughly before the reign of David, and after it.

Ancient Egyptian Warfare

Ancient Egypt was one of the very first civilisations and also one of the first to adopt a hierarchal society. What is interesting about Ancient Egypt is the fact that the time line ran between 3150 BC an 31 BC but the Ancient Egyptian wars did not occur until half way through their existence.

Ancient Egyptian Warfare

The reason why the Egyptians could live in harmony for so long lends itself to the geographical boundaries such as the Nile that were difficult for potential attackers to overcome.

While it is known that the early Ancient Egyptians did send out raiding parties to nearby countries for the looting of precious metals, animals and people to keep as slaves these did not turn into full blown wars.

Hyksos Invasion

It is said that around the year 1650 BC the Hyksos of the northern Nile Delta made an invasion into Egypt and with little confrontation was able to take control of the northern Egyptian lands.

This invasion led to the Hyksos holding the Egyptian lands for around a century. While many see this as a negative for Egypt it seems the Hyksos were part of the reason why the Egyptians grew in stature as a military nation as they took the war to the Hyksos Empire.

The Ancient Egyptians under Seqenenre Tao (II) and Apophis waged war with the Hyksos in northern Egypt and Apophis was able to rout the Hyksos forcing them north out of Egypt forever.

Egypt and the Canaanite

Ancient Egyptian warfare started around 1500 BC and were mainly caused by the Egyptians wish to expand their lands and political control in the region. The first known war was one with the Canaanite coalition that occurred along the coastal lands Israel, Lebanon and Syria and into Turkey.

The most well known battle of this war was the Battle of Megiddo where Pharaoh Thutmose III sent 10,000 to 20,000 men to face an army of 10,000 to 15,000 led by the King of Kadesh and the King of Megiddo. This battle happened in 1457 BC.

The Egyptians camped close to the Canaanite forces and as morning broke the Egyptians surprised the Canaanite in attack, the overwhelming strength of the Egyptians broke the will of the Canaanite and they fell into full retreat. The Egyptians killed 83 Canaanite and captured just fewer than 400 as prisoners, the outcome of the battle meant that the Egyptians needed to lay siege to the city, which they did for 7 months before the city fell in surrender. Egypt won the war and its lands grew to encompass the region within its boundaries.

Egypt and the Hittites

The next well known Ancient Egyptian War was against the Hittites in the famous Battle of Kadesh in 1288 BC. Here the Egyptians under Ramesses II faced the Hittite’s led by Muwatalli II at the plains outside the city of Kadesh (present day Syria).

History says that the Egyptians had 20,000 men with only 10,000 engaged in the battle while the Hittites had a massive 50,000 men. This battle was the largest Chariot battle in history with just fewer than 6,000 chariots between the two armies.

The battle in its placement outside Kadesh came as a surprise to the Egyptians as Nomad travellers had told them that the Hittites were some 200 kilometres north from where they actually were. This meant Ramesses thought that he had the chance to take Kadesh unopposed and rushed towards the city, unfortunately this meant his four divisions got scattered as they all moved at different paces.

The Hittites took the initiative and started a massive chariot attack on the Egyptian division named Ri, annihilating them as they went. The Hittites chariot attack then moved onto a second Egyptian division called Anum which was decimated, although some managed to flee. The Hittites thought they had won the battle and started looting whatever they could from the dead Egyptians, this was their big mistake.

The remaining two Egyptian divisions made a counterattack and the two combined divisions routed the Hittite chariot force killing almost all Hittites other than the few who managed to swim over the river back to the rest of the Hittite army.

The final part of battle happened the next day when the Hittite army attacked once more, this attack turned into bloodshed on both sides with many men lost. In the end the Hittite army had to retreat back across the river to where they were positioned the previous day.

Both sides claimed victory in the battle, although it looks to have ended in a stalemate. The true result was that Egypt didn’t claim more ground but the Hittites could not continue the battle because of logistical problems with supplies thus it turned into a Pyrrhic victory to Egypt.

Ancient Egyptian Weaponry

The Ancient Egyptians were known to use siege warfare weapons such as battering rams and siege towers.

General warfare weapons were a mix of ranged and melee weapons.

Melee weapons used: clubs and maces, axe, knives, swords and daggers.
Ranged weapons used: spears, bows and arrows, and javelins.

The Egyptians wore little body armour and had a simple shield to protect them. It is known that the Egyptians used chariots in battle.

Ancient Engineering: The Art Of Siege Warfare - History

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The Oxford Encyclopedia of Medieval Warfare and Military Technology

From the Viking invasions to the Crusades to the Hundred Years’ War, wars were crucial agents of change in medieval Europe. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Medieval Warfare and Military Technology examines all aspects of warfare and military technology in medieval times. Approximately 1,000 articles signed by the leading experts in medieval military history provide an exhaustive and accurate view of how and why wars were waged throughout Europe, the Byzantine Empire, and the Crusader States between 500 c.e. to 1500.

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Medieval Warfare and Military Technology contains articles on military leaders battles sieges individual fortresses and military technology focusing on subjects such as armor, navigational techniques, and siege warfare tactics. In addition, each regional overview—such as Britain, the Byzantine Empire, and Hungary—includes a discussion of primary sources, an introductory narrative, and an entry on historiography providing a depth and breadth of coverage not found in any other resource on the subject.

Bibliographic Information


Clifford J. Rogers, editor in chief, is Professor in the History Department at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He is the author of War Cruel and Sharp: English Strategy under Edward III (2000) and Essays on Medieval Military History: Strategy, Military Revolutions, and the Hundred Years’ War (2010), editor of Civilians in the Path of War (2002) and The Wars of Edward III: Sources and Interpretations (1999), and is joint editor for the Journal of Medieval Military History, the annual journal of the Society for Medieval Military History.

The Siege of Syracuse: a Roman General vs. a Greek Genius

The Second Punic War, fought between ancient Rome and Carthage, is most well-known for the clashes of the legendary Hannibal with Roman commanders. An often-overlooked engagement during this war is the Siege of Syracuse, from 213-212 BC, which tested strategic military might against feats of engineering. This contest pitted Marcus Claudius Marcellus, a Roman general renowned for his power in single combat, against the Greek mathematical genius Archimedes.

Although it took place in ancient times, the Siege of Syracuse arguably foreshadowed many problems presented in modern warfare. It was essentially a battle of technology–with opposing forces each initially associating victory with the successful use of it. Yet the battle also proved that advanced technology, lacking a superior strategy, is doomed to fail. It is also interesting to note Marcellus’ changed approach when he realized enemy technology could not be matched by his own force—a recurring issue in the history of modern warfare.

At the time of the battle, Syracuse, located on the coast of Sicily, was a large city torn by civil strife. Its dictator, Hieronymus, had recently been assassinated after pledging allegiance to the enemies of Rome. The inhabitants of the city were predominantly Greek and—unlike the Romans—were largely focused on arts and had little appreciation for warfare. The city’s location and geographic characteristics gave it great strategic value. However, by Roman estimation it would not be especially difficult to conquer due to the civic unrest. The Roman general assigned to capture the city was Marcellus.

The ancient biographer Plutarch in his Lives series describes Marcellus as “a man of war, of a sturdy body and a vigorous arm.” He adds that Marcellus was “naturally fond of war,” yet was also “modest” and “humane.” Marcellus was beloved by the men under his command and had great prowess as a swordsman.

“Marcellus was efficient and practiced in every kind of fighting, but in single combat he surpassed himself, never declining a challenge, and always killing his challengers,” according to Plutarch. One of Marcellus’s greatest triumphs in single combat was killing a Gallic king on the battlefield and confiscating his armor in an achievement known as the spolia opima.

Marcellus hoped to take Syracuse without undue bloodshed. However, his plans were foiled by the spread of misinformation in the city by enemy Greek commanders, who claimed he was a vengeful conqueror. Surrender was refused. Therefore Marcellus drew up Roman forces on land and sea to besiege the city.

The Greeks, however, had a secret weapon which gave them confidence against the invaders—a man called Archimedes, whose brilliance in geometry and theory was matchless. The former King Hiero had been so impressed with Archimedes’ demonstration of a pulley system––dubbed siege engines––moving a heavily loaded ship that he had ordered him to design a stockpile of them. Archimedes allegedly disdained using his intellect to design weapons, viewing it as crude and only participating as a matter of duty.

To the Greeks of Syracuse, Archimedes was the answer to all major problems of the impending battle. Plutarch describes him during the siege as “the one soul moving and managing everything for all other weapons lay idle, and his alone were then employed by the city both in offence and defense.”

Like many great minds, Archimedes was a distracted genius. According to Plutarch, he spent most of his life absorbed in developing his theories—to the point of forgetting to eat and neglecting his personal health and appearance. It is said that force was needed to drag Archimedes away from his studies and induce him to bathe and tidy up. His myopic focus on mathematics and abstracted thoughts later played a role in his demise.

By the time the Romans brought forth their land and sea forces to attack Syracuse, the city’s inhabitants had at the ready a stockpile of never before used siege engines designed over the years by Archimedes. The Romans were unprepared for the effectiveness of the groundbreaking technology hurled at them in combat.

Plutarch writes that the engines of Archimedes “shot against the land forces of the assailants all sorts of missiles and immense masses of stones, which came down with incredible din and speed” and “knocked down in heaps those who stood in their way, and threw their ranks into confusion.”

Some of the engines included massive beams shot out from over the city walls which sank ships in the ocean below, while other machines described as “iron claws” or “beaks like the beaks of cranes” threw Roman ships into the air and cast them in disarray back into the water or against cliffs, killing the crews.

The "Claw of Archimedes" by artist Giulio Parigi. (Stanzino delle Matematiche)

“Frequently, too, a ship would be lifted out of the water into mid-air, whirled hither and thither as it hung there, a dreadful spectacle, until its crew had been thrown out and hurled in all directions, when it would fall empty upon the walls, or slip away from the clutch that had held it,” according to Plutarch.

For once in his military career, Marcellus was baffled. He attempted to deploy innovative siege ships, called sambuca, equipped with ramps in order to scale the walls, but these also proved unsuccessful. Afterwards he withdrew his forces and attempted to outwit Archimedes by sending infantry over the city walls in a stealth assault. Marcellus estimated that the enemy’s large engines would not be effective at close range.

Archimedes, however, was poised and ready—he had prepared a variety of projectile weapons with adjustable ranges and when the Romans tried to sneak over the walls, “huge stones came tumbling down upon them almost perpendicularly, and the wall shot out arrows at them from every point.”

The effect on the legionnaires was total demoralization, according to Plutarch. “The Romans seemed to be fighting against the gods, now that countless mischiefs were poured out upon them from an invisible source.”

Indeed the men of the mighty Roman army were so terrorized that “whenever they saw a bit of rope or a stick of timber projecting a little over the wall, ‘There it is,’ they cried, ‘Archimedes is training some engine upon us,’ and turned their backs and fled,” Plutarch wrote.

The determined Marcellus, however, left no opportunity to chance. By this time the siege had already lasted over a year. Taking advantage of a lull in action caused by negotiations, Marcellus reconnoitered a tower at the edge of the city that appeared poorly defended.

He decided to apply the principle of Schwerpunkt—concentration of force—to that tower and planned to strike when the Greeks were feeling comfortable and oblivious.

Marcellus “seized his opportunity when the Syracusans were celebrating a festival in honor of Artemis and were given over to wine and sport, and…not only got possession of the tower, but also filled the wall round about with armed men, before the break of day, and cut his way through” the city, according to Plutarch.

Archimedes was not fated to survive the sack of Syracuse. Plutarch and other ancient sources hold that the mathematician remained, as ever, typically distracted even as the Romans plundered the city. He was said to have been blissfully lost in his equations when he encountered a Roman soldier. Accounts differ as to what actually happened during the encounter. What is known is that the soldier killed Archimedes on the spot.

The death of Archimedes. (Getty Images)

Despite the considerable trouble that Archimedes had put the Romans through, Marcellus mourned the death of his rival. It seems Marcellus had developed soldierly respect for the eccentric genius by the siege’s end. The Roman commander was “afflicted at his death, and turned away from his slayer as from a polluted person, and sought out the kindred of Archimedes and paid them honor.”

In the end, the war machines of Archimedes did not save the city of Syracuse from carelessness. Although they possessed superior technology than their enemies, the Greeks lack of a cohesive strategy and great military leadership—and their overreliance on the genius of Archimedes—led to their downfall. Although the Romans were technologically inferior, their commander’s resourcefulness and above all, his will to achieve victory, led him to complete his objective.

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Ancient Warfare is a modification to Minecraft that adds a variety of game enhancements new blocks, new entities, vehicles, and a template based world-generation structure generator.

Internally, the mod is divided into modules, the Core module being the one that the other modules rely on for shared functionality. The non-core modules are: Automation, NPC, Structure, and Vehicle. Each of these modules focuses on a single aspect of the mod.

Core Module
The main part of the core module apart from providing shared functionality to other modules is the research mechanic and crafting of the research recipes in the engineering table.

Structure Module
Adds template-based structure generation during World Gen. It also includes in-game tools for creation of new templates, as well as a few tools to aid in map creation in general.

Automation Module
Adds machines to automate mining, crop farming, tree farming, fruit picking and animal farming. It also includes the Warehouse, a multi-block that allows you to store, craft, automate input/output, and view the contents in the world. This Module also creates a unique torque energy system that has generators, transport, and storage to run all the added machines. There are also additional blocks to handle auto-crafting, sending items over long distances, and chunk loading.

NPC Module
Adds Player recruitable NPCs for combat and utility purposes. Multiple varieties of combat NPCs are available (i.e. Soldiers, Archers, and Medics), as well as several varieties of non-combat/utility NPCs (i.e. Workers, Couriers, and Traders). It also includes Siege Engineer NPCs that can control siege weapons from the Vehicle Module.

Vehicle Module
Includes many different types of siege weapons (i.e. Catapults, Ballistas, Hwachas, Trebuchets, and Rams) and some additional utility vehicles (i.e. Chest Carts and Boats), as well as plenty of different types of ammo to use with them.

It should be noted that in 1.12 the modules are NOT separate and cannot be individually deleted or turned off.

Medieval Warfare: How to Capture a Castle with Siegecraft

The present-day notion of medieval warfare is of longbowmen standing shoulder to shoulder loosing arrows and knights charging across open fields before engaging in brutal hand-to-hand battle. Hastings, Bannockburn, and Agincourt come to mind. Such battles, however, were the exception, for during the Middle Ages warfare was a much more complicated affair that more often than not involved siegecraft.

After his 1066 victory at Hastings, William the Conqueror initiated a massive castle-building program in England that was instrumental in completing the Normans’ subjugation of the Anglo-Saxons. Throughout medieval Europe and the Middle East, the castle functioned as a private fortress that, among its other roles, physically–and symbolically–proclaimed the status and strength of its lord to all comers, friend or foe. Even the simplest earth and timber motte and bailey castle, used to great effect by the Norman kings of England, validated the power of the conquering force.

During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, castles evolved into powerful fortresses capable of defying intensive assaults. At the same time, in order to combat strengthened castle defenses, siegecraft developed. By the late Middle Ages, few major campaigns took place without at least one castle siege. Indeed, while battles such as Crcy (1346) have gleaned all the glory, it was not until the siege of Calais in the following year that the English made significant progress in their fight against France. The successful castle siege skillfully combined sophisticated science with specific standards of conduct known to, but not always practiced by, the participants. Ultimately, the siege dominated medieval warfare for at least as long as the castle dominated the social and political order of the day.

Besieging a castle was a much more complicated affair than simply ‘rushing into the breach,’ as Shakespeare’s Henry V exhorted his troops before the 1415 siege of Harfleur. Sieges, likewise, involved much more than bombarding a fortress until either the garrison surrendered or the defenses were overcome. In fact the medieval siege was a complex, highly choreographed process that ended with a castle assault only when other tactics had failed to force a surrender. Besieging a castle involved assembling and paying an army, gathering supplies, and hauling them to the siege site. Because the costs were so high, military leaders normally did not rush into a siege. Indeed, if a besieging army lost too many men in an initial onslaught, it was often forced to retreat or give up the siege entirely. If it was successful enough to gain control of the castle, the army’s now-weakened troops might not be capable of repulsing a renewed attack by forces sent to relieve the garrison. Consequently, the full-out siege was normally a last resort, unless, of course, the attacking king or lord had a particular investment in breaking his opponent.

Early medieval sieges were generally directed against towns or major cities, which were often fortified, rather than at individual castles. As castle sieges became more commonplace, besiegers devised methods to overcome increasingly complex defenses. Until about 1100, tactics mainly consisted of using firepower to break through the castle’s physical defenses or of starving out the defenders by blockade. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, siege warfare became increasingly sophisticated, and by the mid-fourteenth century enormous timber war machines had become the mainstay of virtually every investment. At the same time, specific conventions for conducting a siege were well established. The most practiced soldiers followed traditional protocol, which encouraged honorable negotiation and surrender before an attacker pummeled the garrison into submission.

Commanders first had to devise an overall strategy for taking the castle. They had to consider from where in the realm the best archers, skilled carpenters, blacksmiths, sappers, and engineers could be drawn. If a king was contemplating launching a siege, he would consider which lords owed him knights’ service and how many men-at-arms they would provide (knights normally were obligated to serve for forty days during the course of a year). Other considerations included how much timber, lead, tools, nails, food, drink, livestock, and other provisions were required for the duration of the siege and where they could be acquired.

The preparations undertaken prior to the 1224 siege of Bedford Castle by Hubert de Burgh for King Henry III provide a case in point. First, the archbishop of Canterbury, the king’s advocate, excommunicated the castle’s garrison, hoping to demoralize the defenders into surrendering. In the meantime, the besiegers began to assemble vital materials, laborers (including miners, carpenters, and masons), knights, and other fighters. Among the items required for the siege were iron, hides, charcoal, leather, and some nineteen thousand crossbow quarrels. The king ordered protective screens, bolts, hammers, mallets, wedges, tents, wax, and a variety of spices. He also made sure that several siege engines were readied and that gynours, or gunners, were on hand to operate the machines.

The most satisfying way to successfully conclude a battle was without fighting. Indeed, many more sieges were settled by negotiation, bribery, or forms of intimidation than open warfare. Given the huge effort involved in coordinating a siege and assembling an army, potential besiegers made at least cursory efforts to convince the garrison, the constable, or the lord of the castle to surrender peaceably.

Surrender under honorable terms was a common way out of a siege. In many cases, the besiegers allowed the defenders a period of time, ranging from a week to forty days, to decide whether or not to give in. Truces effectively delayed a full-blown assault, so that the constable could contact his lord for directions on how to handle the situation or to gain assistance at the castle. Lengthy truces could also lead to the deterioration of the attacking army, particularly when knights’ forty-day service obligations neared completion and no reinforcements showed up to replace them. If members of a beleaguered garrison knew they had enough food and drink to carry them at least forty days or had notice that relief was on its way, they knew they might survive the investment. Truces also gave the defenders time to construct their own siege engines, shore up their defenses, and build wooden hoards, or fighting platforms, on the battlements.

If the garrison refused surrender demands, the siege began with an overt act by the attackers, a symbolic sign of intent. At the siege of Rhodes in 1480, for example, Muslim forces hoisted a black flag to warn their opponents that they would attack. At times, attackers threw javelins or shot crossbow bolts at the castle gateway to signal their intentions. On occasion, siege engines hurled missiles. By the late Middle Ages, cannon fire signaled the beginning of sieges.

When a garrison refused to surrender, the balance of besieging forces would trek to the siege site, set up their encampment, and construct some basic defenses of their own not too far from the castle’s walls. Engineers would also begin erecting bulky, intimidating siege engines. Other soldiers fomented dissent in the surrounding countryside in an effort to recruit supporters and seize control of crops and other resources–assuming landowners and peasants had not already torched them. It was common for inhabitants of an area to use a’scorched earth’ policy to sabotage an impending siege. After gathering food, livestock, and other items for their own use, they intentionally burned their own lands to prevent the enemy from gaining any benefit from them. Often the resulting famine left the besiegers no alternative but to retreat.

In order to ease access to the castle, attackers might first fill the strongpoint’s surrounding dry ditch or wet moat with tree branches, gorse, heather, loose earth, or whatever else was available. Alternatively, they might sail a barge to the base of the castle’s outer, or curtain, wall. Once the ditch could be crossed or the moat forded, the initial offensive could proceed rapidly. Often relatively light, the early assault primarily featured an escalade–an attempt to scale the curtain wall by ladders. The key to an escalade was for the attackers to climb the ladders as quickly as possible, leap onto the battlements, and begin fighting the defenders. During this effort, archers, crossbowmen, and slingers outside the castle provided protective fire for their comrades while shielding themselves behind screens known as pavises. The onrush would take place at several spots along the curtain wall in hopes of splitting up the garrison, diverting attention, and gaining access at whatever point might weaken.

At the same time, the besiegers assaulted the main gate’s heavy timber doors and attempted to set afire any timber rooftops shielding castle towers. They might also begin hammering the masonry defenses with picks, iron bars, and other tools while protected inside a hide-covered timber-and-iron framework, known variously as a cat, rat, tortoise, or turtle, which had been wheeled to the castle wall. Of course, the defenders made every effort to thwart the escalade by shoving ladders away from the walls, shooting at the besiegers, and dropping stones, quicklime, or hot liquids upon them.

It took nimble, sure-footed, quick-thinking men to maneuver their weighty armor and weapons and scale the walls successfully. At the siege of Caen in 1346, Sir Edmund Springhouse slipped off a ladder and fell into the ditch. French soldiers overhead swiftly tossed flaming straw on top of the Englishman and burned him alive. During the siege of Smyrna, Turkey, also in the fourteenth century, one of the besiegers climbed halfway up a ladder. When he rested and took off his helmet to see how much farther he had to climb to reach the top, a crossbow bolt shot from the battlements hit him between the eyes, killing him.

If an escalade proved successful, the besiegers would chivalrously offer the garrison a final chance to surrender with honor or to call a temporary truce. On the other hand, when an escalade failed to make a serious dent in the defenses, the attackers intensified the onslaught. They also began constructing siegeworks or a siege castle, sometimes called a countercastle, in preparation for a prolonged conflict. Then they would man the era’s most destructive weapons–siege engines.

No two sieges were ever conducted in exactly the same way. How the operation developed depended on the strength, size, and resources of the attacking army the condition and complexity of the castle’s fortifications the fortress’ armory and supplies as well as the resolve of the besieged. An army might employ several different types of siege engines to bring down the battlements while also attempting to force surrender by other means.

Medieval siege engines originated in Greek, Roman, and ancient Chinese warfare. Archimedes was responsible for advancing siege technology, which the Greeks had introduced before the fourth century b.c. The renowned mathematician and engineer developed several engines as early as 213 b.c., when the Greeks fought the Romans at the siege of Syracuse. His prototypical petrariae, great stone-throwing engines, were copied and modified by the Romans and later used throughout the medieval world.

The Romans bequeathed two important siege engines to medieval warfare. The onager, meaning wild ass, consisted of a heavy timber trestle mounted midway on a horizontal timber frame, and it hurled a missile in an overhead arc, rather like a child flinging peas with a spoon. When fired, the engine’s rear kicked upward–hence the descriptive name. The onager’s medieval counterpart, a mangonel, employed a long timber arm or beam held in place by skeins of tightly twisted rope stretched between two sides of the frame. Gunners would ratchet back the arm and place a large stone or incendiary device in the scoop at its end. When the firing arm was released, the projectile would arc out to a range of up to five hundred yards.

Despite the inherent inaccuracy of this torsion-powered machine, which is sometimes called a catapult, the mangonel could effectively break through stone walls or knock down a castle’s battlements. Mangonels were occasionally used to hurl dead carcasses over battlements in an effort to spread disease among the castle defenders. In response, defenders sometimes used their own siege engines to toss back one of the besiegers–if they had managed to capture one during the escalade or during a raid outside the castle–or a messenger who carried unacceptable surrender terms.

Used in battle across Europe and the Holy Land, mangonels saw action when the Vikings besieged Paris in 885, at the 1191 siege of Acre, and at the 1203-4 siege of Chteau Gaillard. Mangonels were also on hand in 1216, when France’s Prince Louis besieged mighty Dover Castle, on England’s southeastern coast. Despite Louis’ greatest efforts, which included a battery of siege engines, he failed to breach Dover’s formidable defenses.

The Romans modified the modest Greek siege engine known as the scorpion into a horrific dart-firing machine called the ballista, which was later used during the Middle Ages. Like the mangonel, the ballista was powered by twisted skeins of rope, hair, or sinew. But, instead of firing its missiles in an overhead arc, the ballista loosed heavy stones, bolts, and spears along a flat trajectory. Easy to fire accurately, smaller ballistas were effective anti-personnel weapons that could skewer warriors to trees, while large versions could send a sixty-pound stone at least four hundred yards.

A variant of the ballista was a tension-driven device called the springald, which closely resembled a crossbow in function. Used to fire javelins or large bolts, it had a vertical springboard fixed at its lower end to a timber framework. Soldiers manually retracted the board, which moved like a lever. When released, the springboard smacked the end of the projectile, propelling it toward its target. Springalds also made excellent defensive weapons. At Chepstow Castle in Wales, Roger Bigod mounted four springalds on the corners of the great keep to hold the enemy at bay. Although the springalds no longer survive, the platforms on which they stood during the late thirteenth century are still visible.

While their comrades busily managed the siege machines, other besiegers used battering rams or bores (chisellike poles) to pound the main gateway and crash through the walls. Rather than simply grabbing a giant log and repeatedly thrusting it at castle gates or stone walls until they broke through, medieval soldiers did their ramming from inside a timber framework called a penthouse or pentise. Used in warfare as early as the sixth century, rams and bores were often pointed and iron-tipped for added effect, and were sometimes shaped, not surprisingly, as rams’ heads. The ram or bore was suspended by chains or ropes from the penthouse ceiling so that the operators, sometimes scores of men, could swing the beam rhythmically and pound the walls into submission.

The movable penthouse consisted of a lanky timber gallery covered with a pointed roof, cloaked with wet hides to prevent burning, and braced with iron plates to deflect missiles dropped by the defenders overhead. The attackers used rollers, levers, ropes, pulleys, and winches to maneuver the penthouse into place at the base of the castle wall. They then removed the wheels to stabilize the structure.

Rams were most effective against timber defenses, particularly the heavy oak doors barricading most main gates. Against stone fortifications, they worked best when battering corners. Defenders would counter by using hook-ended ropes to grab the ram and overturn the penthouse or by swinging beams on pulleys to smash the timber cat as it approached the castle. Popular during the Crusades, battering rams were effectively employed in 1191 at Acre, a walled city with a formidable citadel. They became obsolete once the most powerful siege engine of all–the trebuchet–began to dominate European sieges.

The terrible trebuchet was the mother of all stone-throwing siege engines. A purely medieval invention, the giant counterweight-powered machine struck fear into the hearts of many garrisons. Considerable question exists about the trebuchet’s origins. Peter Vemming Hansen, director of the Medieval Centre in Denmark, argues that the first trebuchets arrived in the Nordic countries by way of northern Germany and may have been used by the Vikings as early as a.d. 873. He states that the first trebuchet arrived in Denmark as early as 1134 and emphasizes that the counterweight engine was definitely a Western invention that spread eastward.

Trebuchet may derive from the Old French word, trabucher, which means to overturn or fall, and probably described the action of the timber beam that falls over its pivot. The word made its first appearance in the account of the siege of Castelnuovo Bocca d’Adda written by Johannes Codagnellus in the late twelfth century. According to the Chanson de la Croisadde Albigeoise, Simon de Montfort used a ‘trabuquet’ against Castelnaudary in 1211, destroying a tower and the hall. Powered by a counterweight mechanism and able to accurately hit targets at a range of five hundred yards with missiles exceeding three hundred pounds in weight, the trebuchet’s ability to relentlessly pound a curtain wall until it broke open made the engine invaluable during a siege.

Engineers in seventh-century China may have perfected an early form of the trebuchet, the perrier–a traction trebuchet operated solely by men pulling down on ropes attached to a pivoting arm. Its medieval counterpart, however, effectively applied the principle of counterpoise and replaced manpower with a counterweight. Lead weights or a massive pivoting ballast box filled with stones, sand, or dirt–sometimes weighing as much as twenty tons–was fixed to one end of the engine’s arm, which could be up to sixty feet long. The other, longer end of the arm would be hauled down and a heavy stone placed in a leather pouch that was attached by two ropes to the beam’s end. When the arm was released, the force created by the falling weight propelled the long end upward and caused the missile to be flung slinglike toward a target. The same spot could be pummeled repeatedly, and range and aim could be adjusted. Eventually, the incessant pounding breached walls, killed personnel, or crushed siege engines defending the castle.

Counterweight trebuchets probably arrived in England when Prince Louis of France besieged Dover Castle during his near-successful invasion of England. In 1216 the French army first used a variety of techniques and weapons to try to breach the resistant castle walls. Then the two sides signed a truce in October, and Louis moved most of his troops to London. After the English garrison broke the truce, killed many of the French soldiers posted outside the castle, and interfered with the movement of troops and supplies, the prince returned to Dover, which he again besieged. The following May, he used a trebuchet, but it proved ineffective. After the defeat of the French fleet in August 1217, the prince gave up his ambitions for the English throne. Despite the losses and his retreat back to France, Louis left an important legacy in England: new technology that not only changed how sieges were conducted but also influenced the design of castle defenses.The trebuchet was also useful for flinging all sorts of projectiles over the curtain walls to create mayhem. In 1346 outside Kaffa, on the Crimean Peninsula, an unknown but virulent disease savaged a besieging Mongol-Tartar army. Hoping to likewise weaken their enemies, the Asian warriors used a trebuchet to toss the diseased bodies of their dead comrades at the Genoese army, which held the major port and cathedral city. The Italian soldiers then unwittingly carried the mysterious disease–later known as the Black Death–back to their homeland, and it subsequently devastated Europe.

Trebuchets also hurled incendiary devices, including flaming missiles, casks of burning tar, and pots of Greek fire, a particularly nasty concoction whose ingredients included saltpeter and sulfur. The fiery substance stuck like glue to almost any surface and was nearly impossible to extinguish, except with sand, salt, or urine–water only fanned the flames. In twelfth-century medieval France, Count Geoffrey V of Anjou used a siege engine to hurl a heated iron jar filled with Greek fire at the castle of Montreuil-Bellay, which promptly fell after having endured a three-year siege.

England’s Edward I, a master of siegecraft as well as castle building, was particularly fond of the trebuchet and used it and other siege engines against castles in Scotland, Wales, and France in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. In 1304 Edward I assaulted Scotland’s Stirling Castle using thirteen siege engines, including a springald, a battering ram, and an enormous trebuchet named Warwolf, which, when disassembled, filled thirty wagons. According to Michael Prestwich, who has written extensively on the reign of Edward I, historic documents indicate that the construction of the giant trebuchet took five master carpenters and forty-nine other laborers at least three months to complete. A contemporary account of the siege states, ‘During this business the king had carpenters construct a fearful engine called the Warwolf, and this when it threw, brought down the whole wall.’

Even before construction could be completed, the sight of the giant engine so intimidated the Scots that they tried to surrender. Edward, declaring, ‘You don’t deserve any grace, but must surrender to my will,’ decided to carry on with the siege and witness for himself the power of the masterful weapon. The Warwolf accurately hurled missiles weighing as much as three hundred pounds and leveled a large section of the curtain wall.

In 1300 Edward had besieged Caerlaverock Castle. Located in the Scottish Borders about three miles from Dumfries, the castle of the Lords Maxwell posed a formidable obstacle to the king’s plans to control Scotland. In a contemporary poem titled ‘The Song of Caerlaverock,’ Walter of Exeter, a Franciscan friar, chronicled the entire event, from the gathering of troops and materials for the siege train to the assault with siege engines. Originally composed in French, the work remains an invaluable record of the tactics and technology involved in conducting a castle siege.

According to Walter, ‘Caerlaverock was so strong a castle that it feared no siege before the King came there, for it would never have had to surrender, provided that it was well supplied, when the need arose, with men, engines and provisions.’ Edward required all of England’s noblemen who owed knights’ service or held property in his name to assemble at Carlisle, in the northwestern corner of the country. He commissioned Brother Robert of Ulm as his master mason, and a variety of specialist laborers to construct a cat, battering ram, belfry, springalds, and robinets (probably trebuchets). Edward also stockpiled large stones, timber, bolts, animal hides, and tools. Ships hauled in supplies by sea, while the siege train journeyed northward to the castle.

Once at their destination, the English army set up camp, erected tents and huts, stabled the horses, and foraged in the surrounding countryside for timber and other resources. Then they laid siege to the Scottish castle. English and Breton soldiers toting small arms charged the castle walls while siege engines began their assault. Despite suffering several deaths, the garrison remained defiant, and the siege continued for some twenty-four hours. Finally, the siege engines breached the curtain wall. Waving a white flag, the Scots first requested a truce to discuss terms, but their spokesman was killed by an arrow, and they soon surrendered. The English ended the siege by formally taking over the castle and flying the king’s standard. The garrison had amounted to only sixty men, whose fates varied from reprieve to hanging.

If a castle was strong enough to withstand the pounding of siege engines and if the garrison refused to surrender, the commander of the besieging army still had several options. He could employ sappers to dig tunnels underneath castle walls and towers. Once the miners reached their destination, they filled the tunnel, sometimes called a sap, with tar-soaked beams, branches, and other flammable material that was set on fire. If things went according to plan and the flames consumed the timber props inside, the tunnel would collapse, as well as the tower or section of wall overhead. Besiegers would then storm through the breach.

Undermining was not without risks, and miners were sometimes killed when a tunnel collapsed too early. Yet the technique was an effective tactic and resulted in the capture of formidable fortresses. In late 1215, England’s King John besieged Rochester Castle, which was held by a group of rebellious barons led by William d’Albini. For almost seven weeks John used five siege engines to pound away at the powerful stronghold, but he failed to take the castle from the well-supplied and well-armed defenders. The king then turned to his miners.

First the sappers managed to breach the outer wall, and John’s troops rushed into the bailey. In response, the rebels retreated to the protection of the great keep, which was one of the strongest in the kingdom. John’s sappers were soon undermining the southeastern corner of the huge rectangular structure and filling the tunnel with the usual flammable items.

Meanwhile, to ensure the keep’s demise, King John ordered his justiciary, Hubert de Burgh, to send ‘with all speed by day and night forty of the fattest pigs of the sort least good for eating.’ After the king had the swine killed, his sappers packed the tunnel with their carcasses. The subsequent fire burned so hot that the keep’s foundations cracked, and the corner and a portion of wall fell outward. The rebels still refused to yield and retreated to the opposite side of the keep, which was divided by a sturdy cross wall into two separate, self-sufficient areas. John then waited out the barons, who finally surrendered due to fatigue and hunger. When repaired, the new angle of the keep sported a more modern round turret.

During the late stages of a prolonged siege, attackers would often make use of one last great engine–the siege tower, or belfry. It was a multipurpose machine that would be rolled to the battlements of a castle so that the men secreted inside could climb onto the walls or operate weapons, such as battering rams and mangonels, from close-range positions of relative safety. Bringing a siege tower into the fray was an expensive prospect and required advance planning, plenty of building materials, skilled craftsmen, and enough soldiers to move the engine as close to the castle as possible. Sometimes disassembled belfries were transported to the siege and only assembled when absolutely necessary, for it could take several weeks to put the engine together. Only the wealthiest noblemen could afford to construct siege towers.

The wheeled wooden tower normally stood at least three stories high. Near the top, a strategically placed drawbridge lowered to allow the attackers to scramble onto the battlements. Some belfries rose well over ninety feet and were crowned with a mangonel or ballista. To protect the belfry from fire and the men inside from being shot, animal hides soaked in mud and vinegar covered the framework. On rare occasions, iron plates also offered protection. The mechanism itself might carry scores of soldiers, who climbed ladders to move between levels. A belfry at the 1266 siege of Kenilworth Castle held two hundred archers and eleven siege engines.

Moving the belfry into position was no mean feat. Attackers first had to ensure that the moat or ditch was filled in and the ground relatively smooth. Then strong, persistent men–and sometimes oxen–hauled the unstable, heavy tower into place at the foot of a curtain wall. Windy weather posed problems, and the large, slow-moving belfry was vulnerable to fire from castle siege engines, as well as archers and crossbowmen.

Each man assigned to a siege engine had a particular role to play. Some were responsible for moving the clumsy structure into place others stood poised with containers of water to keep fires at bay. The ground level of a belfry often featured a ram, which swung on ropes or chains from the ceiling. Sappers might dig at the castle foundations from inside the tower. Archers, crossbowmen, gunners, and armored knights manned upper levels, firing at the castle defenders while waiting to pounce upon them when the drawbridge dropped onto the curtain wall.

During the 1224 siege of Bedford Castle, Henry III employed two enormous belfries to tower over the battlements and shelter archers firing at the garrison. The castle must have been a formidable foe to precipitate such an extensive and expensive undertaking. After it was captured, the king ordered the complete demolition of the fortress.

Given the destructive power of siege engines, the devastation that mining could cause, and the determination of the attacking army, one would expect a breach in the castle’s walls or the surrender of the garrison during the later stages of a siege. But as often as not, the besiegers had to resort to a final tactic to force capitulation. With the attackers already in place around the castle, and much of the land scorched, the likelihood was poor at best that reinforcements and additional supplies would safely reach the besieged. Attackers could then attempt to starve out the garrison.

Of course, this wait-them-out approach could come early in a siege, if the attackers believed the garrison had few resources with which to defend themselves. Then a blockade might save lives on both sides of the fight, while also conserving the resources available to the besiegers if they decided to push ahead with a full-scale assault. Sometimes garrisons held out for months during blockades and forced the besiegers to retreat when their supplies ran out or disease became a problem.

Occasionally, a castle’s constable might concoct shrewd displays to induce an attacking commander to abandon his plans and move on. In 1096 at Pembroke Castle in Wales, Gerald de Windsor ordered that the garrison’s four remaining hogs be cut up and thrown over the curtain wall, creatively convincing his Welsh enemies that his stronghold was fully stocked. His actions suggested to the attackers that the castle was so filled with food that the men inside could resist a siege indefinitely. In fact, the garrison was on the verge of starvation, but Gerald’s plan intimidated the Welsh into a speedy retreat.

When a garrison finally gave in, the men often symbolically signaled the besiegers of their intent to surrender. Many sieges ended with the waving of a white flag or the handing over of castle keys to the leader of the attacking force. Negotiations would then begin to ensure the safety of the garrison or of any important individuals remaining in the castle. For example, in 1326 John Felton, constable of Caerphilly Castle in Wales, withstood a four-month siege led by William, lord Zouche, in the name of Queen Isabella. While the castle ably withstood the battering, Felton began negotiating a pardon for himself and Hugh le Despenser II, boy heir to the lordship of Glamorgan. In March 1327, Felton obtained amnesty and surrendered the castle and its provisions.

As soon as a garrison surrendered, arrangements were made for the movement of captives and the payment of ransom, and the victors were expected to keep up their side of the bargain. A variety of solutions might be debated, including banishment, relinquishment of all personal property, or the symbolic humiliation of the captives, which included parading them barefoot. Not surprisingly, defeated leaders were often imprisoned or swiftly and brutally executed.

In the thirteenth century, cannons, or bombards, began to appear in medieval warfare. It was not until the late fourteenth century that cannons were developed to the point that they began to replace timber engines as the preferred siege machine. By 1415, when Henry V besieged Harfleur, the king’s favored weapon was the cannon, the fire from which devastated the castle’s barbican to the point that the English could then torch the castle and force the French garrison’s surrender.

In response to changing technology, castle-builders devised sturdier defenses to thwart the bombards, as at Craignethan Castle in Scotland, where low, thick bastion walls with cannon loops were added in 1530. As the construction of new castles waned, Henrician gun forts–Henry VIII’s so-called Italian ‘Device’ forts, armed with clustered circular batteries of heavy artillery that eased cannon positioning–began to take their place. Despite these developments, besieging armies continued to adhere to the conventions of warfare established centuries earlier.

Like the timber siege engines, in time the castle became obsolete, not just as a weapon in the medieval arsenal but also as a formidable residence. Yet castles continued to serve a military function until well into the seventeenth century, when they thwarted the efforts of Parliament to defeat King Charles I. As late as World War II, Dover Castle was still considered to have strategic value to the British army and was used by Churchill and his compatriots in the battle against Germany. While castles and trebuchets no longer play a critical role in the military theater, the conventions of siege warfare still guide the efforts of military strategists around the world.

This article was written by Lise Hull and originally published in the Spring 2004 edition of MHQ.

Watch the video: Die Kunst des Krieges - Festungen und deren Eroberung GERMAN DOKU (January 2023).

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